Tech Talkies

[Tech Talkies] Sudhin Mathur: “Lenovo and Motorola are like two sons of the same father”

Sudhin Mathur on Lenovo, Motorola and much more

Are you going to take photographs? Do I need makeup?

Dressed in a casual enough green T-shirt and trademark denim trousers, Sudhin Mathur says that with a straight face. But there is no mistaking the twinkle of humor in his eyes as he looks at the camera we have brought along for our interaction. The man can claim to have seen it all when it comes to telecom in India. He has served in senior leadership positions in Sony (then Sony Ericsson) and LG in India, and is currently the hand that guides the fate of Lenovo and Motorola here – he wears the twin hats of Managing Director, Motorola Mobility, India and Country Head, Lenovo Mobile Business Group. And yet, he does not occupy the kind of media space or spotlight that some of his contemporaries or competitors do. Not that he seems to mind. As we had written in an earlier profile, the man has a knack for backing into the limelight.

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And he leads a life that is hectic. Although very much a Delhi person, he ends up traveling a lot. “Everyday in the morning I get up, and I have to orient myself, which hotel, which city, which place is it,” he laughs and proceeds to tell its how he resolves matters. “If my dog is waking me up, then I know I am at home. If he is not waking me up, then definitely I am not at home. Then I am in a hotel, and I need to figure out the rest of the day.

Xerox, Sony, LG, Lenovo, Moto…but not a tech person!

He might have been associated with some of the biggest names in technology, but he insists his involvement within technology is purely an accident, even though he has a tech background – he studied engineering at the prestigious Delhi College of Engineering. “My technology ended the day I left that place,” Mathur remembers with a laugh (he got a post graduate diploma in management from IMT Ghaziabad later). “I moved into the management side. My first job was at Xerox, which was to sell photocopiers and of course, there was a lot of training.

In fact, notwithstanding his tenures at the helm (or close to it) at some of the biggest tech companies in the country, he STILL does not see himself in the tech field. At least, not as per his own definition. “I don’t see myself in the field of technology but in the field of consumers,” he says. “I personally don’t think we are selling technology. To me, technology is about the R&D guys, people sitting at the Bangalore office, they are technology. Or people who are designing the product.” He pauses and looks at us. “People like you are technology, or Anuj (Anuj Sharma, Motorola India’s product marketing head and Mathur’s ally in many a launch presentation) for example, who know the difference between the chipsets. I look at it like we are in a consumer space where we are selling some proposition to the end consumer.

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He notices us grin skeptically at this – imagine the man heading Lenovo Mobile and Motorola in India claiming he is not in tech – and grinning wryly, explains. “I didn’t choose to be in this industry because it is a technology industry but because it is a consumer industry, where you are in touch with the end consumer talking about what they need. Technology is to explain something that needs to be demystified, that can’t be demystified unless you really know what the consumers need,” he stresses.

He taps his t-shirt, which is rather informal for a company MD. “Take the case of corporate dressing. I strongly believe that we were in a consumer industry. If I were a banker or trying to sell something, I would have definitely gone with suits and jackets and stuff like that. But on a normal basis, you need to rate yourself with your end consumers. They are young; they are vibrant, they have a certain sense of free spiritedness. You need to be like them otherwise you are not connected with them. Then you are a B2B business kind of a thing, and I don’t think the industry we are in is that space.

We point out that he is an engineer, so interest in technology should have been a given. He waves away the notion. “In my days,” he says and then looking at some of the PR team around him adds, “and not in these young kids’ days, – there were only three things you could do, either you could become an engineer or you could become a doctor or you could become a CA.” He holds his hand as he recalls one more option, “Or if it is your father’s business, you can go and join it. Unfortunately, the last one didn’t exist as an option for me.” The wry grin comes on again.

At home everywhere, learning and making his own culture

One of Mathur’s greatest qualities is his ability not just to blend in but also make his presence felt in organizations, no matter how diverse or different their cultures seem to be. After all, he has worked with the Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and American companies and has never seemed out of place at any. When we ask him how he manages, his answer is literally a lesson from the management frontier rather than a textbook.

Sitting back in his chair, he puts his hands together and then speaks in a surprisingly low but intense voice. “A culture of any organization is not writing on the wall that an HR creates and puts. You go to many offices, and there will be posters we are this, we are that” he shakes his head at the seeming superficiality of the thought. And then continues, “To me, a culture is something you create on your own, in your own place where you work. And it’s about interacting with each other. It’s about honesty and your own value system. When you are a part of the organization, you look at your leaders and see how they are behaving and learn from them.

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All these companies I have worked with, I didn’t choose them because of the culture, because before you join any company, you don’t know what is their culture,” he smiles at the thought, looks at us and then taps the table in front of us for emphasis.

You create your own culture, of your own teams or larger teams. There were companies where I found it very difficult to adjust, at other companies I was creating my own culture. They were all multinational companies whether it was Sony Ericsson or Lenovo Motorola. My own value system is free, open, connecting with people, no boundaries, no limits, no sirs, no bosses, everybody has an equal opportunity to speak and participate and have fun as well. The culture of the organization… that’s something you build. There is no right or wrong. It’s about what you stand for, what you represent, because when you are standing up there, you are representing the culture of the organization. I believe being more relaxed or more open, opens up a way for two-way communication, and that’s what we are for. We are in the industry of connecting people and I think we need to remove all the barriers. I am like that and that’s why people around me are like that.

So, was he influenced by the people and leaders he worked with, we probe?

It is not the leaders who teach, the learning comes from everywhere,” he answers. “Established leaders, senior leadership, everybody teaches you very differently. If you say, that the only source of learning comes from one person or a particular stream, I don’t think so.” He thinks for a while, then continues: “I learn a lot from Anuj…to me my biggest learning come from younger people in the organization, then the old leaders. I learn a lot from everyone. And that’s the part of growing up in the corporate world. My daughter and son teach me so many things I don’t know of, which is great. Learning comes from everywhere.

Getting into phone-y waters

He might have started out with Xerox, but Mathur is best known for his work with mobile phone companies. Indeed, he is one of the senior executives today who has seen the smartphone revolution evolve from the very early days when a smartphone was a rare novelty.

I joined this industry in 1996,” he says. “At that time the telecom revolution was just happening, and the operators were setting up shop. There weren’t too many brands. I remember at that time there were probably three brands that used to exist: one was Ericsson, the other was Siemens and third was Motorola. These were the only three brands. Even brands like Nokia, Samsung, Apple…even they didn’t exist. Siemens was known for their battery, Motorola was known for reliability because they were in walkie talkies as well. And Ericsson came and revolutionized everything with that ‘black coffee ad’…

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He pauses and looks at us, wondering if we remember the iconic ad in which a young lady seems to be speaking to an elderly gent at another table and asking him out for dinner. But when he goes over to her, she pulls out a seemingly tiny phone from under her hair (which was covering her ears) and says “One black coffee, please,” highlighting just how small the Ericsson phone was (and breaking the old gents heart.). When he sees us nod in recognition, he laughs happily. For a good name.

I was a part of that team at Ericsson. And we created a revolution. Motorola was big, and Siemens was even bigger then came Ericsson with their tiny phone. So there was some revolution happening at that time. Those were feature phones. Then came Nokia, and changed the way people were selling technology at that time.

Along came Nokia…

He explains the difference Nokia made. “Whether it was Siemens, Motorola, Ericsson – these were all actually technology infrastructure companies, selling phones. Siemens was selling infrastructure, Motorola was selling infrastructure and company telecom. And so was Ericsson. So this was a part of their business. Nokia came and started making it about consumer products.” He refers to another classic mobile phone ad, this one about the Nokia 1100. “They started to talk about the torch light in feature phones. You remember the ad of a truck driver in which he says “raat me bhi jalta hai’ (it works in the night too)? They changed the context of the industry.

The results of this were dramatic. Mathur ticks off the casualties on his fingers. “Ericsson became Sony Ericsson, Siemens vanished, Motorola also vanished at that point of time, and Nokia started flourishing. Then came the consumer electronics, giants, the Samsungs of the world. But these were still feature phone days at that time, and we were Sony Ericsson.

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It was during this period that Mathur started being noticed, as he was often the spokesperson for the company, making launch presentations and addressing press conferences. “We created new passion points: the Walkman series, the Cyber-shot series, which were brilliant,” he recalls. “Top of the line but still feature phones and no smartphones. Samsung came and started to bring in the smartphone era, and everybody started to move towards smartphones without really knowing what they were.

…and then there was Apple!

Till this time, the key learning from the feature phone was that if there is a consumer passion point, you need to attach a device to it if you need to succeed – so you had phones with good cameras and phones with good music and so on,” Mathur points out. “So as Nokia and Samsung were trying to make phones a consumer product and the smartphone journey had just started, Apple came up and said ‘why do you need to buy four phones? if you want music, camera, enterprise, experience, here is one phone called iPhone.’

He shakes his head as he casts his mind back to 2007 and the first iPhone. “And at that time, I remember brands were making 20-50 phones as part of their portfolio planning. Here we were making 50 different phones, and that was our portfolio, and then this brand stands saying ‘I have only one phone.’ Everybody laughed, including Sony Ericsson in those days, everybody laughed.

He shrugs his shoulders and smiles at us as if apologizing for the shortsightedness of the industry at that time. “And now if you look back, Sony Ericsson doesn’t exist, Nokia does not exist.

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Consumer context changed,” he explains as he continues. “The journey next was the smartphone journey. Then came the Indian brands, Micromax, Intex, Lava, all saying ‘why do you have to buy such expensive phones,’ and targeting the convert from feature phones to smartphones. That’s where the growth happened for 2-3 years. As we sit today and look back, all those brands which were the top five, where are they now? The new leaders are Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, Lenovo, Moto, Samsung…

There is a brief silence as he stops. And then gives his own theory on phone evolution, one that is rather different from what one sees in most corporate presentations, and one that we suspect is based on more than two decades in the industry than on statistics. “So the point that I am making is that consumers are evolving and every four years or so this industry reaches an inflection point. If the brand misses the inflection point, it can only go down. If you miss the inflection point, there is somebody else coming and talking about something new, which consumers want.” He stops once again and smiles at us – the smile of a man who has seen his share of inflection points and might have even missed one or two – and summarizes:

And if you don’t listen, you are out.

That entrepreneur underdog love: Moving to Lenovo

We move on to his current assignment, which he stepped into way back in 2013, when he was appointed director of smartphones for Lenovo, a brand which was literally non-existent in the smartphone segment (one of Mathur’s trademark lines at presentations is “in 2013 we were number 33 in India, and there were 32 other smartphone brands, so we could not have gone lower…”). He had been the face of both Sony Ericsson and LG by that time, and rumors had been linking him to better known brands. Why did then he opt for a player as small as Lenovo?

I have always said that though I didn’t have a family business, but always had the entrepreneurial instinct,” he answers. “I like to be in that space which is zero (non-existent), and you pick it up, and you start making it grow. When I was in Ericsson, it was just entering the market. When I was in Sony Ericsson, it was zero, and we reached the top tier. Then I was briefly in LG for exactly one year, and once again, business was low when I joined and much higher by the time I left.

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So somewhere that’s what my passion is and that’s what I love to do: that we in a place can create something which doesn’t exist and keep driving it and keep building businesses from scratch rather than joining a company that already exists and is running. Then you’re just improving processes rather than improving or trying to create something.

He smiles. “That’s the reason I chose Lenovo when I left LG. I had offers and companies that were offering me jobs were leaders at that time,” he pauses and laughs, and adds: “Some of them don’t exist today.” But refuses to divulge who he is referring to, and instead goes back to Lenovo.

I didn’t take those offers, and instead I started my own consultancy firm for two years which was in the space of retail. I was consulting same organization, the same telecom industry on how to create retail excellence. In one year’s time, I was earning more than what my salary used to be.” However, he stepped away from that as well. His reason?

After working, I couldn’t fill 24 hours of my day, which is what I like to do because when you’re an entrepreneur, and you start up a new business, you need to keep doing new things, keep trying new things and Lenovo offered me that opportunity. To fill my 24 hours. It was a great company, it was an established company, a large multinational, and it was really successful on the PC side,” he explains. “That’s the only reason I chose Lenovo – there’s no Lenovo phone at that stage, right? The smartphone journey had started, there were 30 players, established guys already out there we had to fight them. The organization was strong, and they have given me that leverage to keep trying new things which any entrepreneurial set up won’t do, and that’s the reason I chose Lenovo rather than any of the established companies that exist.” He pauses and then laughs and adds again: “And some that don’t exist now. No, I am not telling you which ones.

We ask him what he thinks of the return of Nokia to the Indian market. He bursts out laughing and says: “All the best to them!

From underdog to top dog: the Lenovo saga

The Lenovo success story is one of the more surprising in Indian telecom because the company seemingly came out of nowhere and without any hype or high profile marketing campaigns. Yet within a few years, it was one of the leading players in the market, displacing the likes of Sony, HTC, and LG and laying challenge to Samsung’s mantle as smartphone top dog in India.

When asked how they managed this, Mathur puts it down to innovating. “When you work in a particular industry or in a particular style you know it’s not about doing all the good things, it’s also about eliminating bad ones, right? So you do things that you think are going to succeed which nobody has tried and tested before. That’s how the businesses grow. I’ve said that in the past as well that we, actually particularly for me, we don’t follow anything.

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He stops, collects his thoughts and utters a line that perhaps defines his approach, an approach that is reflected in his refusal to take on competitors or name rival brands at launches openly.

When you follow, you can’t lead. You only repeat what others are doing. You need to find a new track, a new path because that’s what the future will look like, right?

He goes back to Lenovo’s rise in India. “Yes, we were number 32 or 33 in the market, because we were entering and there were established players in the market, but when I look back that was also the case when I was in Sony Ericsson, and that was also the case when I was in LG. So I was pretty confident that the journey would not be a difficult one. But we just needed to change the concept of the current market scenario and see what we needed to do. Which is where the reason for our success lies: everybody was doing this whole retail line of getting an entry into the smartphone market. It’s a very expensive proposition, very difficult and that’s why we embarked on the online strategy. At that point, we had nobody else who believed it or had established theirs in the market at that time.

That’s where we embarked on the online strategy which at that point nobody else believed in. At that time, almost the whole market was brick and mortar and the retail market was almost 90-95 percent but the smartphone journey was still underway and feature phones still constituted the bulk. I strongly believe we are in the consumer business and we have to look at the consumers. With young people increasingly searching the Internet and Internet penetration growing fast, consumer behavior was changing, and when you see large partners like Amazon, Flipkart, and Snapdeal, there is definitely a path. Therefore we decided to take this route rather than the old brick and mortar one, which is the traditional way of doing it. That does not mean that it (traditional brick and mortar) is not important…but you have to choose your battle that you need to fight. And that’s the one we chose.

And aiding the company’s surge online were products like the K3 Note and the less celebrated A6000, for which Mathur has a particularly soft corner, as he feels that it helped the company really take off.

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For Lenovo, it turned after A6000,” he remembers. “And we were in discussion with Flipkart, and they asked to buy a good number. About half a million! We fell from our chairs because we did not even hit that number in a year, at that stage. Then we sat together. They had the plan, and it was a success for the A6000 and A6000 Plus, and we ended up selling more than a million products. That is when we started a flash sale, and in 10 seconds, we sold some 20,000-30,000 phones. We were shocked, and so were others – we called everyone at the Flipkart office to actually show the sales happening. This showed how much power this channel has if the product proposition is right. There is a consumer out there who is known and is well aware of what he or she wants to buy.

He leans forward to stress his point: “Imagine buying a phone without even looking at it. It’s like changing the belief, and that’s happening. And that is what I keep saying – keep the consumer in the center of the conversation and rest is all a route to them.

Figuring out what the consumer wants

And figuring out what the consumer wants or is interested in can be quite a task and definitely not just a matter of guesswork. “We do a lot of product testing, concept testing,” Mathur explains. “There is big research team which is out there just to understand the trends. I was with one of the teams who were just there to understand the color trends. I thought they would go out and buy phones and you know what they did? They went to the paan shop and bought all the colorful supari packets, and they went to the emporiums and bought all the Rajasthani print carpets because that’s what consumers are. This is the level of research that goes in our organization. There are a lot of insights from our young consumers on what they do in their free time or how are they spending time, are they listening to music or on social networks or are they on YouTube or are they on Facebook.

He digresses to Moto land for a while. “I think the concept of the Moto Mods came from there – that these are the passion points of the consumer and we focused on bringing the technology that enables them to enjoy their passion points.” Which of course leads us to ask him which Moto Mods he himself uses. “I myself use all the Mods,” he says. And then divulges his favorite, “I personally love the JBL Mod, and I carry it in my bag wherever I travel.” As we discovered later, he does have an ear (and a voice) for music.

The Lenovo-Moto relationship: “You have two hands”

Of course, it was during Mathur’s tenure at Lenovo that the Chinese company took over Motorola’s phone business. And this presented him with the challenge of managing two brands, each of which was doing well in its own right.

Asked how he managed the seeming rivals, Mathur feels that the two brands actually address different sets of customers and at some level actually complement each other. “One of the strengths of our organization is that we have created two different and distinct propositions for two very different and distinct consumers,” he says, referring to Lenovo and Motorola.

My daughter and son are like chalk and cheese – one is Motorola and other is Lenovo. My daughter is Motorola, and my son is Lenovo. They are living under the same roof, under the same umbrella but people over time start building their own personality. To me, Lenovo and Motorola are like two sons of the same father, and that’s what I think is our strength. Having two different personalities and targeted at two different audiences is also our competitive advantage and differentiator. The channels are very different, so both brands have a role to play in this industry, and they are playing that role very well. Of course, we can do better on both.

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It is far too diplomatic an answer, so we probe further: what is the target audience of Lenovo and Motorola? Pat comes the reply: “Lenovo is more targeted at consumers who are feature, price, technology oriented, willing to take risks, and are not so brand driven. This is the reason why A6000, K3 Note, K4 Note and so on and so forth were successful. Moto, on the other hand, is targeted at a very different set of consumers, who are brand conscious also want technology but are far more connected, less rebellious and looking for more trustworthy products and a more long term association, more loyal to what they use,” he pauses and then sums up: “I would say Lenovo is a younger consumer bur Moto is a more mature consumer.

But what of the perception that in recent times, Lenovo itself has been moved from the spotlight with Motorola getting more attention? After all, this year has seen more phone launches from Motorola in India as compared to Lenovo. “I wouldn’t say Lenovo has taken a backseat, but Motorola has come up more because that’s where I see the future of this industry: where consumers are moving from tech to experiences. And I believe Motorola as a brand is more suited to catering to that particular consumer,” he explains. “It’s only a marketing focus.

But does it not feel odd to let a relative newcomer take over the spotlight from a brand that he himself had established against all the odds? After all, Motorola was a huge brand before it came to Lenovo, but Lenovo itself was an unknown quantity in smartphones before Mathur, and his team made it one of the biggest players in the Indian mobile phone market.

The question does not faze Mathur. He smiles and replies: “You have two hands and they have different roles to play. Both need to be active to lead a proper life. You cannot chop off one hand!

Moving up the price ladder, betting on Z and losing the Vibe?

But if Lenovo and Moto were both important and fulfilled different roles, why was Lenovo’s Vibe series laid to rest recently? And even the Vibe UI is being cleaned up and brought closer to stock Android. After all, the series had come with some very innovative devices. Mathur explains: “The Lenovo-Moto integration is a journey that is going on. The vibe was earlier a Lenovo brand and now that we are one entity, of course, under the Lenovo umbrella. Most of our R&D, engineering and manufacturing are with the Motorola world, and I think we have a lot of learning from there. Innovation can be brought by not adding a lot of stuff and layers. I mean, at the end of the day, you use 6-7 features more often, and the others just slow down your phone. I think that moving towards a more cleaner Android was a conscious choice we have made based on the learning and consumer insights.

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The mention of Android brings us to an allegation often leveled at Lenovo – that of being slow off the block when it comes to providing Android updates. Mathur concedes that this might not have been Lenovo’s forte, but things are changing. “We take that as a good feedback, and I think it is a good input,” he says. “We may not been as fast as consumers would have expected from us. But, on the other side, if you look at Motorola, we launched the Moto C Plus with Android Nougat. Is there any phone in that price band from the existing established players in the market which can deliver that?

Indeed, recent times have seen more action on the Moto front than the Lenovo one. And that is a trend that could continue. “You will see a lot on the experiences of Motorola, the Moto G series basically stands for that,” says Mathur. “I think you will see the more innovation in the experiences, one is on the Mod and other is your experience on the phone itself. You’ll see the portfolio we have introduced, the new series, the C series, which is to take Moto to the wider price points. So you’ll see more experiences, more Mods, and a wider product portfolio with each series having its distinct call-up. I would say Motorola earlier stood for E series or G series. These series were bulk propositions; you’ll see enhancement in both G and E.

And it is not just about mass markets. Mathur is looking at the higher priced segment too. “Motorola is probably the right brand in this country to be the challenger to the more established brands on the top. The consumer is moving up the ladder now, and that’s what I think you’ll see.” He, in particular, expects great things from the Moto Z series, especially with its Mods. “I think it is important for us to expand the Mods ecosystem,” he says, pointing to a collection of Moto Mods on the table. “What people have seen is about only 3 or 4 Mods but there are many different passion points, and I think the idea is to create more Mods and an ecosystem before we create more products.

The way ahead: betting on experiences rather than specs!

Mathur feels that the phone market is at an inflection point at this time. “The consolidation of the top in the smartphone industry is happening. Earlier there were so many brands who would go to China, pick things up and launch a brand. Four years back, all they had to do is to put their names on the phone and there was a consumer out there for them,” he explains. “But consumers have matured over a period of time. After the transition from feature phones to smartphones, now conversion within smartphones is happening. The journey for the last two or three years in the smartphone industry has been in the spec race, who has got a better camera, memory, chipset, display…that has been the journey. The inflection point has now come, and it is transforming to better experiences. In my personal view, in the next three years, you will see consumers asking for better experiences rather than better chipset, camera — and that is where the innovation will come. Yes, prices will keep coming down, and better specs will be available at lower prices. But those are not going to be the big game changers.

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This industry is changing now. The consolidation has started to happen. We are significant players in this industry, and we have reached here because of what we think we have done well in the past. But I think a new journey has already started and what you will see more is from the Motorola side, where the journey we are talking about has already started with the Mods ecosystem.

Singing, sketching and loving it!

The business side of the man wrapped, we ask him what he likes doing when he is not working. “I don’t know which hour of the day you are talking about,” Mathur replies with a straight face. “I am not workaholic, but it’s like…it’s fun to be here.” He does like his music though. And is a good singer. “More Hindi songs, more Bollywood,” he replies when we ask him about the type of music he likes. And of course, he has an app for it. “There is this app called Smule. It gives you karaoke options, and that’s what I do in my free time.” He asks us to join him on the app – take it from us, the man can sing!

He is a man of instinct when it comes to hobbies. “I just develop new passions every year,” he says. “Before I joined here I used to play golf, and I would probably spend 4 hours or on weekends whenever I got time.” However, the job offer from Lenovo killed that. “I had got a new golf set before I got an offer from Lenovo,” he smiles ruefully and confesses: “The plastic wrapping of that set has not even been removed.” There was also a period when he used to like reading management books, and he loves sketching too. But his most recent passion is man’s best friend. “I wanted to have a pet, and it just happened,” he says. “I got a beagle at home without even telling anyone, and everyone was like ‘what is this,’ but now he is my best friend.

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And what does he see himself doing next? He bursts out laughing and says, “I should tweet more often. I should be on LinkedIn more often. Yesterday late night around 1 AM, something popped on my phone. I have not been on LinkedIn for ages, but I opened it, and I saw some 1000 invitations, and I accepted everybody,” he pauses and continues: “And in the morning – you won’t believe it – I had 200 job requests, 150 marketing proposals…So this is certainly something that I want to do. Somewhere I feel I want to be more visible, I should say…

Higher visibility is something that Sudhin Mathur might well have already achieved, although he might not be aware of it. He does, as we mentioned before, prefer to back into the spotlight rather than charge into it. And being in the headlines has not robbed him of a certain olde world charm and courtesy. This is, after all, the man who tends to be among the last to eat at launch events, ensuring that his team has eaten. A man who finds himself as happy with a microphone singing songs as he does making a presentation about a forthcoming phone. There are many sides to Sudhin Mathur, and we have a feeling that we might be seeing a few more. As he said himself, he does tend to develop new passions.

As we get up to leave, he asks us if the pictures that we have been clicking have been good. When we say they have, he laughs at the others in the room: “See? I told you I don’t need makeup!

And then the man who heads Motorola and Lenovo’s mobile inside in India does something that none of the people we have interviewed has ever done.

He opens the door for us himself, smiles and says: “I love talking to you guys. I think we should meet more often.

Typical.

Akriti Rana contributed to this article.